by Kaylee Hultgren | October 01, 2007



When Dale Shuter, meetings and exposition manager for the Electrical Apparatus Service Association, confirmed Minneapolis as the site for this year’s annual convention, her attendees were bewildered by the choice. Why Minneapolis? Compared to Las Vegas, where the group met in 2006, this seemed to be a downgrade. By the time the June meeting ended, however, most had changed their minds.

“People tend to think that because it’s not New York, Chicago or Vegas, it’s not worth it,” Shuter says. “But our post-convention survey revealed that Minneapolis received higher marks for overall location than Vegas did.”

Though second-tier cities might not have the largest hotels or most glittering ballrooms, a number of them are committing major dollars to revamp their downtowns, expand their convention facilities and build unique cultural venues. The following, all classic American cities that have had their ups and downs, are working hard to prove they are back in the game and well worth a second look.

St. LouisSt. Louis

Thanks in large part to some creative urban renewal, St. Louis is poised to attract lots of new meetings business. Indeed, hotel room bookings are up by 20 percent this year over the average for the past five years; the revamped America’s Center convention complex now offers an expansive 502,000 square feet of exhibit space; some 7,000 hotel rooms are now available within a mile radius of the center, and the city is beginning to see the fruits of a massive $3.5 billion investment in its downtown.

A fitting symbol of St. Louis’ revitalization is the transformation taking place in the Washington Avenue loft district, long removed from its 1920s heyday as the center of a bustling garment industry. “Ten years ago, the area was dotted with empty and abandoned warehouses,” says Donna Andrews, a spokesperson for the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission. “Today, we’re preserving the look and feel of these original, historical structures.”

The result is a burgeoning new neighborhood of trendy lofts, restaurants and art galleries, anchored by the convention center complex. Last December, the effort was rewarded by a prestigious award for urban development from the U.K.-based nonprofit World Leadership Forum; St. Louis beat out more than 400 applicants from around the globe.

Planners are beginning to take notice of the altering cityscape. Jeff Johnston, meeting services director for the Memphis, Tenn.-based American Contract Bridge League, had not been to St. Louis since 1997, but he recently returned with a group of 7,000. “There were a variety of hotels for different tastes and budgets,” he says. “Our group pays their own way, so rates are very important to them. And downtown life in general is much improved. It used to be more sleepy, but now it seems as though every building has some kind of new development going on.”

Coming soon is the $495 million Lumiere Place, built by Pinnacle Entertainment in the Laclede’s Landing district, near the famed Gateway Arch. Spanning nine blocks along the Mississippi River, the project will feature a massive casino, opening by year’s end, connected via pedestrian walkway to St. Louis’ first Four Seasons hotel, set to debut in 2008 with 200 guest rooms, a 12,000-square-foot spa and 18,000 square feet of meeting space.